As San Diego State fans headed for the exits during the final seconds of UNLV's first win in Viejas Arena in five years, the only sound that echoed through the building was a faint "Rebels" chant from a pocket of road fans in attendance.
UNLV earned those those cheers with easily its best performance of the season. Anthony Marshall scored a team-high 20 points to lead the Rebels to a hard-fought 82-75 win, exactly the type of gritty road victory that has been so elusive in conference play during coach Dave Rice's otherwise successful two-year tenure.
"I think we took a real big step today down the stretch," senior guard Justin Hawkins said. "It's a relief to finally get a win here on the road. We're going to enjoy this for a night before we move on."
If it's too soon to proclaim UNLV's road woes over, at the very least Wednesday night's win qualifies as an encouraging sign. Entering the game, the Rebels (15-3, 2-1) were 2-8 on the road in conference play during Dave Rice's tenure, with the two victories both coming in overtime at Air Force and Boise State.
Surviving a 27-point night from Jamaal Franklin to beat 15th-ranked San Diego State on its home floor qualifies as significantly more impressive. Not only were the Aztecs unbeaten at home this season prior to Wednesday night, they had won 58 of their past 62 games at Viejas Arena.
"We understand how difficult it is to come to Viejas Arena, where San Diego State is so good," Rice said. "I'm just so happy for our seniors because we didn't have a player on our roster who had ever won at Viejas Arena. After the game, we dedicated it to Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins and Quintrell Thomas. I told them I didn't want them to finish their career without a win here."
It looked as though the road victory might slip through UNLV's fingers when San Diego State unleashed a 12-0 blitz midway through the second half to turn a nine-point deficit into a three-point lead. Rice burned two timeouts in an effort to stop the run and quiet the roaring crowd, yet still the Aztecs threatened to pull away.
"I just tried to put pressure on them," Marshall said. "Khem (Birch) did an excellent job setting picks for me. Every time I got in the lane, I was just trying to get it up on the rim because I had faith in him to tip-dunk it or rebound it."
Despite Marshall's heroics, guard-heavy San Diego State was able to stay in the game by spreading the floor and taking bigger, slower UNLV defenders off the dribble. As a result, Rice made a calculated gamble for the final four minutes, removing Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser and surrounding Birch with four guards.
The risky moved proved effective as Justin Hawkins contained Franklin off the dribble, Birch altered shots around the rim and the Rebels still outworked the Aztecs for offensive boards. Birch tipped in a Bryce Dejean-Jones miss to make it 76-73. Hawkins put back a Dejean-Jones airball on the next possession. And Birch closed out the victory with a put-back off an errant Marshall driving layup, extending UNLV's lead to five with 25.4 seconds to play.
"At the end of the day, it was just about being tough enough to make enough plays," Rice said. "We didn't do that at New Mexico, but we grew up in the Air Force game. And certainly tonight, this was a great toughness win."
The victory reflected how UNLV is finally starting to mesh.
With Marshall playing point guard for the first time in his career, Moser sidelined for three weeks with an injury, Birch not eligible until mid-December and a slew of freshmen and transfers to work into the rotation, the Rebels not surprisingly weren't very cohesive the first two months of the season. Now they're starting to protect the ball, display better shot selection and understand their defensive responsibilities, which is enabling them to tap into their immense potential.
That progress couldn't come at a better time because UNLV was starved for a win at Viejas Arena.
Birch slapped hands with UNLV fans next to the tunnel and grinned as he left the floor. Moser leaped on Bennett's back a few seconds later. And assistant coach Justin Hutson, a former San Diego State assistant, stood outside the locker room and high-fived every player before they entered.
Yes, Wednesday's victory was a long time coming for UNLV, so it was only natural for the Rebels to enjoy it.
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